I'm an awful runner. It's so bad that I recognize my teammates better from their backs than I do from their fronts. It's ok--my complicated relationship with running (or swimming, or biking, for that matter) is a luxury that I'm unbelievably fortunate to have. As an active kid, I hated running, and as an inactive adult focused on my career, I never made the time. Now, running is how I choose to celebrate my life because it's the polar opposite of what my life has been over the past decade.
Back in 2003, I was 30 years old and life was great, I just wasn't feeling that great. I was unexplainably weak and anemic, but it wasn't until I started hemorrhaging every couple weeks that my doctors began more extensive exams. After several months of tests, the doctors recommended exploratory surgery to get a closer look to see if they could find the issue. During surgery, they found a grapefruit-sized tumor hiding in my intestines. The tumor was removed and quickly biopsied so that by the time I woke up, I had been diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma.
Chemotherapy was added to my treatment, and while it helped save my life, it created another issue by damaging my heart and leaving me with heart failure. By the middle of 2004, my heart had started to become progressively weaker, making it difficult to walk hills and stairs. I was given a pacemaker-defibrillator implant, but my heart continued to deteriorate and I went on the transplant list in August of 2010. By the end of December 2010, things had gotten much worse. I was unable to lie down to sleep or lift my head when I was propped up in bed. My arms felt like they were filled with lead and I couldn't walk 20 feet without going into a coughing-fit and needing to rest. Finally, on January 3, 2011, I received the new heart that would save my life for the second time.
The impact of the new heart was immediate - it gave me life, but it also left me with a body that looked like it had been hit by a truck. I started my physical therapy by shuffling from one side of my bedroom to the other. After a few months, I was on the treadmill and looking to push the new ticker a little harder. I had gone from a walk to a slow jog, but I was feeling strong and picked up the pace again to something resembling a run -- and for about 20 seconds, my chest and chin lifted, my feet got light, and goosebumps broke out all over my arms. It was a runner's high, and with it came all of the forgotten memories of what it felt like to be alive and healthy. It was at that point that I knew that I had to continue to chase that feeling and help others find their way back to health. Eight months after my transplant, I ran my first 5K race. Two months later, I joined Team In Training for 13.1 miles in the Philadelphia Marathon. Now I'm training with TNT again, this time for the St. Anthony's Triathlon in April.
It's an incredible honor to join my heroes at TNT, and while the feeling of the physical accomplishment is extraordinary, it's also the little things that make it so special, like a cool breeze on a long run, or turning a corner to see a beautiful sunrise, or maybe the thrill of picking up some speed down a hill and feeling like I've never been faster. By the time I catch up to the rest of my teammates, I'm completely exhausted, but then I think about how lucky I am to be here and how far I've had to come to get to this point. What I feel more than anything is grateful for the opportunity to repay my debt - the money and awareness raised by Team In Training and the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society have led to advancements in medical science that helped save my life. My experience has given me hope for the others that will go through their own cancer journeys, and with that in the front of my mind, I'm ready to hit the trail all over again.
Thanks for everything,
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Derek, you're an inspiration to many and a true example of the spirit of Team In Training --- Go Team Recycled Man! Go Team!